I went in with fairly low expectations, and Once Upon a Time in Venice proved itself to be an amiable surprise. It is a straightforward comedy with solid action moments thrown in at a decent pace. At this juncture of his career, it’s hard to say where Bruce Willis can really go. He’s still believable as a battered, cranky action hero. In fact, there are moments in this directorial debut from Mark and Robb Cullen that kind of feel like someone decided to check in on Willis’ Moonlighting character David Addison after a few decades.
The above thought works as well as anything; there isn’t a lot of depth to these characters. As a private detective named Steve Ford, Willis really is more or less playing David Addison as a senior citizen. That’s fine. If nothing else, and lacking anything particularly original, Once Upon a Time in Venice gives us what is probably Willis’ most enjoyable work in at least a few years. His run as an action hero, barring at least one more Die Hard (we need a better farewell to the series than the fifth one, okay?) is coming to an end.
Contrary to at least some opinions, Bruce Willis a better-than-average actor. The question then is what comes next for him. It doesn’t seem like he’s going to retire anytime soon. It also doesn’t seem like he’s going to get out of B-movie hell anytime soon. Moonrise Kingdom was quite possibly the last time Willis’ strengths as an actor suggested a potentially fascinating career after action movies. It has been an unfortunate downward spiral ever since. It even includes a disappointing turn on Broadway in Misery.
So what’s next? Once Upon a Time in Venice is better written and better cast than most of Willis’ work in the 2010s. John Goodman can create engaging chemistry with seemingly any actor on the planet. Willis is no exception, and their scenes together are quite enjoyable. When Willis isn’t doing things like refusing to do a scene with Ralph Garman of all people, he can still be a compelling actor. Believe it or not, he doesn’t even have to blow anything up.
Beyond the pleasure of seeing Willis and Goodman on screen together, the movie offers a brisk comedy that doesn’t overextend itself. Jason Momoa has things like Justice League and the Netflix/Discovery series Frontier to worry about. His presence here as a gang leader named Spyder isn’t necessary, and it doesn’t quite make the most of Momoa’s surprising comedy chops.
Still, like the rest of the film, it winds up being better than you might have guessed at the outset. Rounding out the cast, we have names like Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley), Famke Janssen, Kal Penn, and Christopher McDonald. Most of those people have a good deal of experience with being excellent, or at least entertaining, in fair-to-middling-to-holy-shit-what-happened films. With a good script, good pacing, and comedy that rarely gets to a point of feeling forced, they help elevate Once Upon a Time in Venice to something that is honestly a lot of fun. It’s a very specific type of fun, but fans of Willis, or even John Goodman, should be pleased.
At the moment, Bruce Willis seems to be in something of a career limbo. The action roles are drying up, and it doesn’t seem like very many directors or studios are scrambling to let him do anything else. That’s a shame. Once Upon a Time in Venice is proof that Willis is still a worthwhile leading man.
Advance copy provided for review purposes
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Once Upon a Time in Venice isn’t a classic, but it’s certainly not a waste of time either.
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